In August and September 2020, when the antigovernment protests triggered by Belarus’s fraudulent presidential election had just started, many feminist observers in the country were hopeful. The so-called women in white had managed to change the dynamic to de-escalate tensions and turn the street protests into a peaceful and, hence, more powerful and sustainable movement.
The next few weeks saw not only protests led by women from very different parts of society but also increased LGBT visibility on the streets. A picture of two young women kissing under the white-red-white opposition Belarusian flag in front of a row of security forces went viral. And clearly, people felt safe enough to hold up banners that read, ‘It’s better to be gay than to be a dictator’—a reference to Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s 2012 claim that it was ‘better to be a dictator than gay’. All told, it seemed to be a feminist watershed moment.
Parallels between state-sponsored and domestic violence
The first protests in summer 2020 had been accompanied by a widescale violent crackdown by the Belarusian authorities against demonstrators, journalists, and others. For many feminist activists—in particular the FemGroup, which formed as a working group within the opposition Coordination Council—there were striking parallels between the state-sponsored violence on the streets and violence towards domestic partners at home.
Domestic violence originates in a worldview that cannot cope with equality. It is most prominent among men who strongly identify with traditional gender roles that prescribe a hierarchy in which they are superior.
However, it is impossible to fulfil all the expectations attached to this hierarchy at all times. These men therefore have a constant insecurity that they will be ‘found out’ as emasculated, especially by their male peers, who have the power to confirm their social standing or take it away. The only remedy for these men is to violently assert their position over those who, in this perspective, are subordinate others: most obviously, but not only, women.
The current consensus on domestic violence is that it is less an assertion of power than a temporary and desperate claim to power. The same pattern can be discerned in Lukashenka. He views the citizens of Belarus not as his stakeholders but as subjects from whom he demands total obedience. This has worked for most of his twenty-six-year rule thanks to the climate of fear he established. The miracle that happened last August was that many people could overcome their fear.
Threatened by the disobedience the protest movement stood for, Lukashenka reacted in ways typical of domestic abusers. First, he pulled all available triggers to establish as much control over citizens as possible, targeting independent media in particular.
Second, in state-controlled media he framed the protesters as the real threat. In so doing, he made recourse to two established mechanisms in domestic violence: he reversed the roles of victim and perpetrator and the powers associated with them, and he defamed the victims to delegitimise them.
Finally, he sought peer support from other perpetrators, first and foremost Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, to confirm his false narrative. Protesters picked up on these parallels with domestic violence. For instance, one poster rephrased the popular apologist saying ‘If he beats you, he loves you’ as ‘If he beats you, he goes to jail’.
A long struggle for recognition
All of this made members of the FemGroup optimistic that they had a window of opportunity to push for special attention to be paid to domestic violence. Women’s rights organisations have fought a long battle on the subject. The first attempts to introduce a bill on domestic violence were made in 2002. But to this day, Belarus and Russia are the last countries in the post-Soviet space not to have laws that criminalise domestic violence—even though it is clearly pervasive. Every year, the police in Belarus records about 150,000 incidents.
In July 2018, after almost two years of negotiations between the Belarusian interior ministry and women’s NGOs, the activists’ goal seemed to be in sight: a domestic violence bill that had been cleared by all relevant ministries was presented to the public. But only a few months later, Lukashenka blatantly dismissed it, using the anti-gender and anti-Western narrative popular among authoritarian regimes in the region: ‘Somewhere someone mentioned that whole “against domestic violence” thing. It’s a trending phrase in the Western world. Soon they won’t have any families [left].’ The interior ministry announced soon afterwards that the bill had been shelved.
With the 2020–21 protests, the activists hoped for renewed attention on domestic violence. However, members of the FemGroup and others argue that they have been stonewalled in the Coordination Council. In their view, even though the council is headed by Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, it remains a male-dominated institution. In addition, there is a pervasive notion that men have been the predominant victims of state violence, not least because they form the majority of political prisoners.
As a result, a focus on domestic violence is deemed a distraction and politically less viable than the aims of freeing all political prisoners and holding free and fair elections. This is probably true: a December 2020 survey by ZOiS in Belarus showed that most people protested in response to the violence and the rigged presidential election, not because they were in favour of gender equality.
Shifting public opinion gives cause for optimism
Silence on the issue of domestic violence is particularly problematic because there are justified fears that it may have spiked during recent months of protest. A Minsk online magazine recently published testimonials by women who had experienced domestic abuse because of their political views on the demonstrations.
Yet, members of the FemGroup remain somewhat hopeful because they see that public opinion has shifted. The public is now more receptive to the concept of bystander trauma, which occurs in children who witness domestic abuse, because most people have seen violence in front of them on the streets.
This should be an important reminder that women’s movements have always been characterised by heterogeneity and long, tedious battles. It took proletarian as much as bourgeois women to secure women’s suffrage and maternity leave. Female protesters should not have to achieve a revolution immediately to be noteworthy. As the Moscow correspondent of the German weekly Die Zeit, Alice Bota, argues in her upcoming book The Women of Belarus, the fact that women and some of their political grievances have visibly entered the public space in an authoritarian country like Belarus should be applauded in itself.
Dr. Leandra Bias works as gender advisor and senior researcher at the peace institute swisspeace.